Reading Novels is the Best Mandarin Hack

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Those of us learning Chinese from abroad often struggle to replicate the levels of immersion students based in China take for granted. This is especially true for speaking and listening, where being surrounded by the language and constantly interacting with native speakers is ideal for an intermediate learner. However, when it comes to reading there is no good reason why someone studying in China should have any advantage at all. A learner in the UK has just as much access to online reading materials as one based in Beijing. With the pandemic continuing to restrict many people’s ability to travel to China, taking advantage of this fact is a key language hack.

A year ago, having spent the previous few months working on my reading using graded readers and short articles, I decided to tackle my first novel in Chinese: a translation of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s important to mention that I didn’t read the paper version which would have been a far more painstaking process. Having found a digital copy of the book I imported in into LingQ where I could read it comfortably, clicking on any unknown words to instantly discover their meaning rather than looking up words in a dictionary. Using websites like LingQ or a plugin browser makes it possible to read comfortably and extensively even when faced with a relatively high proportion (10-15%) of unknown words. I have written more about this process here.

Although my first Chinese book was a translation of a children’s novel, completing it felt like an important accomplishment. Shortly afterwards I read two similar books, The Little Prince and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For the first time I found myself properly immersed in long form reading material intended for native speakers rather than learners. Being constantly bombarded with new words and characters helped me to rapidly expand my vocabulary and increase my character recognition. Although I have never been much of a bookworm in English, after reading several stories in Chinese I was sold on the benefits of novels for second language acquisition.

My next challenge was to attempt authentic Chinese novels, as opposed to translations. I turned to online language gurus and friends for recommendations but found many of their suggestions inappropriate for my reading level. Native speakers can sometimes find it difficult to gauge what kind of material learners will find difficult, assuming if its easy for them it will be easy for us too. Several people recommended 三体(The Three Body Problem) a hugely popular science fiction novel which one friend described as “easy”. I found it completely impenetrable. The first chapter was full of vocabulary for all kinds of weaponry I don’t even know the english words for. Next I tried reading 骆驼祥子(Rickshaw Boy) a classic novel published in 1939 which online polyglot Steve Kaufmann said was the first ever book he read. However, I found the old Beijing dialect it is written in too much to cope with. There were simply too many old words and phrases I wasn’t familiar with and I couldn’t understand enough to follow the plot.

Finally, after a few false starts I was recommended the novel 许三观卖血记(Chronicles of a Blood Merchant), penned by the celebrated modern Chinese writer 余华 (Yu Hua). The book is about the life of a man who sells his blood in order to sustain his family living through periods of famine and the turmoils of the cultural revolution. The writing style is very clear and the story quite moving. A large proportion of the novel involves dialogues between the main characters so much of the language sticks to simple everyday vocabulary and phrases. The reader is offered a vivid sense of what it was like to live through the periods in which the plot is set. This includes many of the darkest aspects of the cultural revolution such as the ‘public criticisms’ which those who were deemed enemies of the revolution were subjected to. Overall, it proved an excellent choice for a first Chinese novel and I couldn’t put it down.

After finishing Chronicles I started searching for similar material that could help me simultaneously explore Chinese language and history. I was recommended the author 曹文轩 (Cao Wen Xuan) whose novel 青铜葵花 (Bronze and Sunflower) is also set in the cultural revolution. The story follows a young girl and her adopted mute brother as their poverty stricken family struggle to make ends meet in rural China. The writing style is arguably slightly tougher than Yu Hua, with some florid language describing the beautiful marshlands and rural scenery. However, there are also plenty of simpler dialogues too and it was a highly enjoyable read.

My third Chinese novel was 坏小孩 (The Gone Child)by 紫金陈(Zi Jin Chen), a page turner about a group of three children who accidentally film a murder and become embroiled in a game of psychological chess with the perpetrator. By the time I started reading this novel my reading speed had noticeably improved and I felt much more comfortable reading for pure pleasure. Aside from some challenging parts where detectives discuss technical forensic evidence most of the novel was not too difficult. In fact, for the first time there were long spells when I actually forgot I was reading in a foreign language.

Combining reading with listening is essential for any learner, especially if they are studying from abroad and don’t have an immersive environment to fall back on. The Gone Child has recently been adapted into an excellent TV series some of which I was able to watch online for free. Although the plot diverges somewhat from the original novel, many of the words used are the same helping to reinforce the vocabulary I acquired through reading. For the rest of the novels mentioned above I combined my reading with listening to the audiobook versions using he app 喜马拉雅 (Ximalaya). This excellent resource has a library of thousands of audiobooks which can be accessed for a small subscription fee.

Reading for pleasure in Chinese has become a part of my life. I now spend more time reading books in Chinese than in english and although it is obviously more challenging than reading in my native language I no longer regard it as study time. This process has not only improved my language skills but has enriched my understanding of China’s history and culture. At the moment I am half way through another fascinating book by Yu Hua called: China in Ten Words, a collection of non-fiction essays about modern China in which the writer recalls his memories of growing up in the 60s and 70s. I also have a long list of books I intend to read, including Yu Hua’s most famous book 活着(To Live) and Cao Wen Xuan’s Thatched House.

Reading novels remains the best method I have come across for building vocabulary as an intermediate learner in a largely painless and enjoyable way. With so much digital material now available online, all learners should take advantage of what I consider to be the single best language hack for studying Chinese.

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6 Thoughts

  1. Andrew Bell says:

    Thanks, Mischa, for this interesting blog. I’ll try to find books by these authors. I have benefited from reading parallel text versions of The Old Man and the Sea, and The Catcher in the Rye, among other books. I am currently trying to read a Chinese translation of Red Star Over China, which is a bit of a challenge to be honest. Learning through stories is definitely a good learning method.

    1. Thanks Andrew. The books you mention sound interesting. I found it can help if its a story you’re already familiar with the english version of which was the case with the translations of Childrens books I started with.

  2. This was really awesome to read. I totally agree, once you start reading in Mandarin it can feel almost like cheating, because you’re acquiring the language in your free time and it feels nothing like studying. Interestingly, 坏孩子 was the second novel I read and I’ve been recently reading another novel by the same author called 长夜难明 which is also quite the page turner, although it does contain quite a bit more technical vocabulary. I still definitely recommend it, it also has a drama adaptation.

    1. Thanks Lei Lei, glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve decided to focus more on spoken Chinese than reading novels this year, but I’ll definately take a look at 长夜难明 in future. By the way I checked out your blog and really enjoyed reading your posts, especially the one about improving your listening. I was wondering whether you might be interested in coming on my podcast to discuss impriving Chinese listening. No worries if not but if you’re up for it feel free to drop me a message on mischa[dot]wilmers[at] .

  3. Thank you for inviting me to your podcast. I’m not sure about it yet since I’m a bit shy, but it sounds like fun though, so I might give it some thought.

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